TheRinger has a great oral history of Rounders. This was for a while a movie that had a pretty big influence on my leisure time, and arguably my life, given how much time I’d subsequently spend in the game in 2002-2005. It was a portrait of friendship and striving, a hero’s journey of someone choosing a character-rich demimonde.
Poker aficionados can fill many hours discussing pros and cons of the movie. A gazillion online poker handles were paeans to the film (“TeddyKGB” and “MikeMcD” and it’s variants so common. Few of those players were very good.)
There are two big bluffs in the movie.
He first bluffs on behalf of his professor, the first demonstration of his purported abilities – the audience has only seen him lose big so far. He’s “seen half the hand. How the **** are you betting into us?!”
The bluff works, he’s shown his poker skills and moves up the law at the same time. Despite the invitation from the judge, he doesn’t pull up a seat “I can’t. I don’t play cards.”
In the set up for the final confrontation with TeddyKGB, Mike recounts a story of bluffing Johnny Chan at 300-600 – the highest limit played in Atlantic City. Still a limit game. The damage can be contained. Mike doesn’t really have the bankroll to play at these levels. The implication is that he CAN bluff with a lot on the line. But it was really just calling Chan’s bluff. He’s read the other player well (who he’s seen on what limited poker television there was at the time) — just as he read the professor’s opponents. We’ve been told he can even play weak opponents blind, can just watch them.
The script’s structure for revealing his one real bluff, is a great case study for when to use flashbacks in screenwriting. Learning this backstory in the penultimate scene adds poignancy to the opening scene while accelerating us to the conclusion(s). It also adds character to the character’s nadir, where he is watching Chan on TV.
On to Teddy’s lair. Great poker players as repeatedly told in the film, you’re playing the man, not the cards. Teddy is trying to push Mike, on the very first hand, when Mike gets a pair of Kings.
A glorious hand to start with. Mike raises; Teddy re-raises, half his chips. If Teddy has AA well enjoy your slavery; of course one goes all in here. It is safe to do this. It’s exactly what you want in poker, not just the hand but the preceding action. Mike has just gotten lucky.
How much better if Mike had merely represented the KK and had a K2 off suit? Then shown the cards to taunt Teddy?